Swing Time by Zadie Smith

After reading and enjoying On Beauty last year, I was very intrigued by the build up to Zadie Smith’s most recent novel, Swing Time, which came out towards the end of last year. I was given a copy for Christmas, but had to leave it at my parents’ house for a while since I couldn’t manage to fit it in my suitcase. However, I have finally managed to read it, and I can definitely say that it was a novel I enjoyed. Of the three novels I have read by Smith, Swing Time is by far the most accessible, and I found it a fairly easy read. However, I think that On Beauty is still by far my favourite of the three for the depth that permeates through every aspect of the novel.

Swing Time follows the story of an unnamed narrator as she reflects on the events in her life that have led her to be hiding in an apartment, receiving an abusive email from her childhood best friend, Tracey. With chapters that alternate between the narrator’s recent past and her childhood, the reader follows the story of her turbulent relationship with Tracey and her equally turbulent relationship with her new boss Aimee.

Whilst the main aspect of the narrative is the relationship between the narrator and Tracey, I found these chapters to be less interesting than the chapters which start to explain how the narrator finds herself in the position she is in at the opening of the novel. The chapters set in West Africa were by far the most engaging to me, perhaps partly because the reader is instantly on alert once Lamin is introduced since he is mentioned in that opening chapter. However, these chapters also appealed to me because the characters seemed to come to life more in these chapters: the narrator, in particular, does a lot of growing up throughout this part of the narrative.

The narrator is the most compelling character of the novel, although not necessarily the most likeable. One of the challenges of a first-person narration is the fact that the reader is always seeing the other characters with the bias of the narrator. I found both Tracey and Aimee to be incredibly unlikeable, but at times I wondered how much of that is the result of the narrator’s tense relationship with them both. By contrast, the male characters the narrator encounters in West Africa, with whom she has less antagonistic relationships, seem much more likeable.

This was a book I enjoyed reading, but one I have found I have little to say about. It was well-written, as Zadie Smith’s novels always are, with interesting characters and relationships. However, the novel did not resonate with me on the same level as On Beauty: I did not come away from the narrative with the same excitement and fascination. Having said this, I think I would perhaps recommend Swing Time over On Beauty to a first-time Smith reader, as I do think it is a more accessible narrative. Overall, I’m glad to have read this novel, and it is one that I would recommend.

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